“Nature does not proceed in a straight line, it is rather a sprawling development.” – Robert Smithson, creator of Spiral Jetty
FEATURING: Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Hinako Saeki, Eun-Kyung Shin, Keiko Takahashi, Ren Ôsugi
PLOT: High schooler Kirie notices a growing and dangerous fascination with spirals throughout her small town, beginning with her friend Shuichi’s father, who develops a compulsive need to own and consume objects with the pattern. The affliction spreads to her classmates, who take on whorled physical characteristics and even transform into snails. With increasing numbers of cases and deaths, Kirie and Shuichi decide if they should–or even can–escape.
- Uzumaki was adapted from a manga by , who makes a cameo of sorts on a “Wanted” poster in the sandal-wearing policeman’s office.
- Production on Uzumaki began before Ito had finished writing the series (possibly at the studio’s insistence, so that it could coincide with the release of another Ito adaptation, Tomie: Rebirth). As a result, the manga and film have significantly different resolutions.
- A four-episode animated TV adaptation was announced in 2020; it is still in production after many delays.
- Director Higuchinsky took his name in tribute to his birthplace of Ukraine. This was his first feature, up to this point having worked primarily in music video.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s not the most shocking sight, nor does it draw upon the many examples of body horror that define the spiral epidemic. But the appearance of an enormous spiral-shaped storm in the sky, which begins to coil downward and reach out to the town like the accusatory finger of God, is when Uzumaki lays all its cards on the table. The spiral is everything, can reach everywhere, and will affect everyone.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Mr. Saito’s eyes; Kyoko’s crazy curls
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Uzumaki lacks a proper monster, any kind of terrifying villain. The bad guy here is a curling pattern. It’s to the film’s credit that it not only pulls off this unlikely trick but adorns it with truly unsettling examples of its malign influence. The fact that there are no sorcerers or alien invaders to blame only makes the events of Uzumaki more unnerving. This outwardly harmless force has no clear point of origin, no cause to be addressed, which only makes its effect on the populace more disturbing.
Original trailer for Uzumaki
COMMENTS: In order to appreciate the strangeness of Uzumaki, it’s instructive to look at one of the film’s J-horror contemporaries. Ringu (like its American remake The Ring) establishes the premise that a supernatural horror lurks which afflicts those who make the mistake of opening themselves up to it by watching a videotape. By contrast, Uzumaki posits that dangerous forces surround us, appearing out of nowhere, and that no one can escape their effect. Guess which one was a box office smash and which slipped into cultdom?
There’s every reason to play this premise–curls drive everyone crazy–for laughs. Uzumaki does not, establishing right away that there’s nothing funny about the spiral-induced behavior. Shuichi’s father is so entranced by a snail that he has completely blocked out the world, and later becomes hostile when he runs out of spiral-patterned fish cakes to eat, manically stirring his soup to create the desired effect. By contrast, his mother develops an intense fear and revulsion at the very sight of the twisty lines, leading her to do unspeakable things to her own fingerprints. A boy falling to his death at the base of a helix-shaped staircase is only the beginning of a number of unfortunate and unpleasant fates for Kirie’s classmates, and as we soon see, the affected zone is spiraling outward.
One of Uzumaki’s clever choices is to hint at other types of movies trying to sneak in, only to be stomped out by the ever-present spiral. Kirie’s relationships with a snarky friend and a snobbish queen bee suggest a high school comedy that gets superseded by the mean girl’s development of massive spiral-shaped curls that bounce in the air like the fronds on a fiddlehead fern. A crusading news reporter gets his very own doing-the-research montage straight out of a detective story, only to have his big reveal waylaid by a car accident that ends with a pedestrian swirled around the front wheel and the reporter’s eyeball at the center of a spiraling windshield crack. You can keep looking for a way out, the movie says, but you’ll have to keep circling back to the danger at hand.
To add to the effect, Higuchinsky shows right from the start that the power of the spiral affects the film itself. When Kirie is confronted by her irritating wannabe suitor Yamaguchi, the shot rotates to throw both her and us off-balance. Once you know that spirals are the big bad, you quickly notice that the production design has put the things absolutely everywhere. (The frequent appearance of 6’s and 9’s throughout the town is a running gag.) Plus, every now and then a portion of the screen seems to swirl like a whirlpool, twisting the picture and making you question if you saw what you thought you saw, or if the movie has just planted its mania into your head.
If the pandemic gave us anything, it’s first-hand experience with a foe that could be anywhere, whose existence isn’t universally accepted, and whose consequences are dire. That gives Uzumaki an additional quality that was not immediately evident on release: foreboding. Ringu was afraid of the past, of doom delivered by VCR. Uzumaki has its spiraling eyes locked on a future where anything could presage the end.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Those of you that don’t appreciate weird films tread no further. ‘Uzumaki’ is the sword-swallowing, albino, bearded lady, in the carnival side-show of David Lynch’s mind.” – Ross Williams, Film Threat (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Spiral (2000)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Anime News Network – The internet’s most trusted anime news source has an Uzumaki entry
This Spine-Chilling Movie Is Japan’s Lovecraftian Take On People Obsessing Over Mysterious Spirals – Kate from “Marvelous Videos” breaks down the film in a visual essay, including quotes from the director about his vision and intent
Uzumaki (2000): Adapting the Absurdist Horror of Junji Ito – Olivia Bagshaw examines the comedic elements embedded in the film’s grotesque horror for the YouTube channel “You Have Been Watching Films”
HOME VIDEO INFO:
According to online reviews, the audiovisual quality of Discotek Media’s 2022 Uzumaki (buy) is only a slight improvement on previous DVD versions, but it does include a new commentary track by director . Also included are behind-the-scenes footage, the raw camcorder footage of the first spiral death, and the original trailer.
Uzumaki can also be rented or purchased on video-on-demand, or streamed for free by anyone with an Amazon Prime account.
(This movie was nominated for review by Dan. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)